The NFL Players Association was smart to choose a David-sized executive director to replace Hall of Fame lineman Gene Upshaw. The looming battle with the gargantuan and heavily fortified NFL might be won with a well-aimed stone.
DeMaurice Smith took over his new job at the most difficult moment in two decades of relations between the league and its players. He was at the NovaCare Complex yesterday, meeting with a couple of dozen Eagles players.
Smith would have preferred to address the entire team, but most of the squad scattered at the end of last week's sort-of-voluntary camp. Such is the logistical reality of trying to meet with 32 teams during the off-season.
"When I flew home from Nashville [last week]," Smith said, "that was my 41st plane flight in the last four weeks. I'm going to be about two inches shorter when this is done and I'm not sure I can afford it."
Smith jokes about his height (about 5-foot-8) in that way that dares you to take him lightly because of it. It's the same way he talks about not being a former pro or college player, and therefore a surprise choice to replace Upshaw. Smith defeated former Eagle Troy Vincent and former defensive lineman Trace Armstrong in a vote earlier this year.
He will ultimately be judged on how he handles the most daunting situation since the union decertified after the disastrous 1987 strike and fought its way back to prominence through the courts.
In the last year or so, NFL owners voted unanimously to reopen the collective-bargaining agreement early, after the 2010 season; signed enormous new TV deals that provide revenue even if there is a labor stoppage (a lockout, in this case), and set up 2010 - the dreaded "uncapped year" - to put the squeeze on players' earnings.
Roger Goodell's Death Star is fully operational, during an economic crisis that will leave fans with little sympathy for either millionaire athletes or billionaire owners.
The death of Upshaw last summer left the union scrambling for a leader capable of getting up to speed quickly and taking on the league. In person, Smith is everything he's been made out to be: smart, sharp-witted, prepared, more PR-savvy than Upshaw, who tended to say whatever popped into his head.
Smith said he'd had one meeting with Goodell and "we've got another one scheduled. But as far as the CBA negotiation stuff, we're going to keep that kind of close to the vest."
Already, Smith has demonstrated very different views from Upshaw, who was despised by many retired players for his perceived insensitivity to their plight. While he was earning seven figures representing active players, Upshaw was not especially receptive to the pleas for improved pension and disability programs for the men who played before, during, and after his own career.
Smith, the non-player, feels just as strongly that "the NFLPA had a fiduciary obligation to the players who made this game great, but I also believe personally that they have a moral obligation."
While Upshaw held that he reflected the beliefs of the active players, Smith said his own election suggests otherwise.
"If there was ever an opportunity for these players to not pick a person who believed as strongly as he did about the former players, they had it," Smith said. "The fact is, the players of today recognize that the game today is . . . built upon the players that came before."
Smith has already taken concrete action, settling a lawsuit filed by retired players over use of their images in video games. Instead of appealing and continuing to fight, Smith's NFLPA agreed to pay the plaintiffs more than $25 million - nearly as much as a jury awarded them.
As encouraging as that is, the larger point is that Smith's different approach may be just what the players need now. While Upshaw was often characterized as being too close to the commissioner - broadcaster Bryant Gumbel famously described Upshaw as the "personal pet" of Paul Tagliabue - Smith is a high-powered attorney who seems prepared for the looming confrontation.
"Even in the worst economic downturn in our lifetime, they've secured television deals that go until 2014," Smith said. "We know that all of those TV deals . . . have been increases over the past television deals. We know that attendance continues to climb. We know that 40 million people watched the draft, and we know that [the league] generated over $8 billion last year."
Smith wants the union to have access to the teams' financial statements. If the owners can prove they are struggling financially, contrary to all appearances, then fine, the union will share the pain. If not, there's no good reason to shut down America's favorite sport.
That's a pretty well-aimed stone. It's up to Goliath whether to duck or fight.